Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 [45:07]
Hungarian March* [4:52]
Trojan March* [4:40]
The Corsair, Overture** [7:51]
The Roman Carnival, Overture** [8:21]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Paul Paray
Recorded: Cass Technical High School, Detroit, 29 November 1959; * Old Orchestra Hall, 3 April 1959 ** 24 March 1958. DSD


The French conductor and, let it not be forgotten, composer, Paul Paray (1886-1979), was Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1952 to 1963. He made a considerable number of recordings for the Mercury label with the Detroit Symphony. Itís good to see some of these now getting the SACD treatment.

Itís also worth just reminding ourselves that the Mercury team believed in producing as true a sound as possible; they eschewed the use of a multitude of microphones. Thus, as the booklet informs us, a mere three Telefunken microphones were employed. Well over forty years later their brilliance, presence and natural sound continue to impress. One would scarcely think that these recordings are as old as they are. The sound is quite bright but itís far from shrill and the microphones pick up an abundance of detail. Iíve only listened in conventional CD format but Iíve been mightily impressed with the sound and can imagine that those with SACD facilities will find even more to savour.

Parayís is not, perhaps the most subtle account of the Symphonie Fantastique that one has heard, certainly not in comparison with any of Sir Colin Davisís recordings. However, his approach is direct and exciting. He leads a generally vigorous, rather urgent account of the first movement. Personally I regret that he is disinclined to linger. After all, Berliozís love-lorn hero was affected by more than a touch of melancholy.

Iíd characterise the ball scene as efficient rather than affectionate but the music glistens nicely. The crucial harp part is in excellent perspective. On the whole the pace is just a shade too brisk for my taste but itís certainly exciting.

At the opening of the third movement I was impressed by the fine cor anglais solo and by the echoing oboe. This movement is very well played but I didnít sense an excess of affection. Good though the performance is, I find more sense of fantasy with Davis. Parayís country scene is seen in the clear light of day rather than through a heat haze. At the conclusion the ominous drum rolls are splendidly reported, as is the plangent cor anglais.

The March to the Scaffold is taken quite steadily, which I always like. In the heat of the march the low brass snarl thrillingly while the trumpets are bright and ringing. To my mind the opening of the Witchesí Sabbath finale needs a slightly steadier tempo than we hear from Paray. At his speed the music sounds a bit matter of fact. The tolling bells are managed more successfully than is the case on some recordings Iíve heard. As the momentum mounts so too does the performance adrenalin. Superficially itís very exciting indeed but in the last analysis the element of Gothic horror and grotesque caricature just eludes Paray.

In summary this is a good Symphonie Fantastique in which thereís much to enjoy. It isnít a leading recommendation nowadays but itís still well worth hearing.

The other items are most enjoyable. The Hungarian March trips along jauntily. Perhaps a touch more weight would have been welcome but Paray builds the tension well as the piece unfolds. Thereís a good amount of swagger in the Trojan March. I liked his account of The Corsaire. The slower, quiet music immediately after the surging opening is beautifully done. Here Paray conducts with affection and establishes a lovely ambience. The main allegro is done with great brio. To conclude weíre offered a Roman Carnival overture in which thereís a satisfying degree of panache.

The music-making here is far from negligible. However, this is one case where the engineers deserve as much credit as the musicians.† The work of the Mercury team of Wilma Cozart Fine, Robert Fine and Harold Lawrence demands as much respect now as it did when the recordings were first issued. Indeed, perhaps they deserve even more respect today since these recordings have stood the test of time admirably and need not fear comparison with the latest digital issues. In a nice touch Mercury have retained the original LP artwork and comprehensive notes.

Even though Paul Parayís account of Symphonie Fantastique would not be a first choice today it still has much to commend it. This is a CD that Iíve enjoyed hearing and Iím sure it will give pleasure to others - and not just to audiophiles.

John Quinn


Return to Index